Posted: Thursday, December 1, 2016 12:00 am
Shortly before Thanksgiving, a junior member of the minority party in Richmond did something that is hard for someone of that lowly status to do.
He made statewide news.
Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, quit his post as treasurer of the House Democratic Caucus and issued a cryptic statement calling for “radical change”: “We have been discussing for years the need for change, and now the voters have clearly spoken. While change takes time, it is critical that we begin a massive overhaul. The caucus seems to have little intention of entertaining that. As a Democrat, I want to use my energy toward efforts that restore trust among the people. That can only be accomplished by pushing radical change.”
What, exactly, does that mean?
Probably not what either astonished Democrats or gleeful Republicans are thinking.
Across the country, Democrats are grappling over how to respond to their staggering defeat in the presidential election. Should they move to the left? Should they try to reframe their pitch to appeal more to white, working-class voters? Rasoul says those are the wrong questions. “This is not a left-right debate,” he says. Instead, he’s thinking in an entirely different dimension. To fully understand where he’s coming from, we need to rewind to Dec. 7, 2013, because that’s when Rasoul’s differences with fellow House Democrats really began.
In November that year, Onzlee Ware resigned his seat in the House of Delegates (he’s now a judge), setting in motion a special election. On Dec. 7, Rasoul edged out three challengers in a “firehouse primary” to win his party’s nomination. That night, operatives from the House Democratic Caucus were standing by to take over the winner’s campaign against the Republican nominee. Rasoul told them “thanks, but no thanks.”
“I said I will do my own campaign,” Rasoul said. “I do my own messaging. I do my own mail. I have a brand focused on positive values. And I’m not about to throw any of that down the drain.”
The way Rasoul tells it, House Democrats wanted him to run a negative campaign against Republican Octavia Johnson. He didn’t want any part of it. “I didn’t want them to do any negative poll questions,” he says. “It didn’t matter to me because I wasn’t ever going to use it. We fought back and forth. We secretly made our own TV ads and placed our own spots. They said no one had ever done that in the history of the caucus.”
There were two special elections happening that January — this one to fill Ware’s seat and another to fill a state Senate seat in Norfolk. Democrats assumed they’d win the Norfolk seat but were worried that the contrarian Rasoul who had spurned their advice might not make it in Roanoke. Instead, Democrats barely won in Norfolk, while Rasoul won by nearly a 3-to-1 margin. “That was a vindicating moment,” he says.
Rasoul’s theory on how to win a campaign had come out of a previous defeat — his unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2008. His was not a “targeted race” that year, meaning the party paid little attention to what was clearly a long-shot bid. So he was on his own. Rasoul decided that he would not say anything about his opponent that his opponent wouldn’t agree with. He’d focus on the issues, not anything else. That didn’t work out so well in a Republican-heavy congressional district, but Rasoul is still convinced it’s a better way to run — and eventually win.
It’s a point he’s been trying to make within his party ever since — just without much success. The current political paradigm is that a candidate must attack the other side. Rasoul says that might win one election, but it won’t build a party over the long term. “When you scare someone into voting, it’s a one-time thing,” he says. He says it’s better to build a political party that people trust to look out for their interests. He calls on his background as a business consultant: Car companies used to sell cars through high-pressure sales techniques. Now, the focus is shifting toward building brand loyalty so the customer keeps coming back.
“Both major political parties have a branding problem: Solid majorities don’t trust either one,” Rasoul wrote in a commentary in the Virginian-Pilot newspaper back in June. He presciently urged his party then not to build its presidential campaign simply around attacking Donald Trump: “As a Democrat, I am hoping my party will not double-down on negative politics.” He especially warned that such tactics would not excite young voters. “Those antiquated tactics do not build trust with voters, especially emerging voters. Millennials gauge trust differently from previous generations, favoring sincerity even more than competence in deciding how much trust to place in our leaders.”
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